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“ What, hast thou not full often struck a doe,
And cleanly borne her past the keeper's nose ?" Whereupon Steevens, wishing to discredit the play as Shakespeare's, remarks: “We have here Demetrius, the son of a queen, demanding of his brother if he has not often been reduced to practise the common artifices of a deer-stealer, absurdity worthy the rest of the piece." Probably Steevens had never read in the old chronicle of Edward of Caernarvon, the first Prince of Wales, that “King Edward put his son, Prince Edward, in prison because he had riotously broken into the park of Walter Langton, Bishop of Chester, and stolen his deer.” The Prince did this at the instigation of his favorite, that handsome, insolent rake, Piers de Gaveston; and he had previously begged Hugh le Despencer to pardon his “well-beloved John de Bonynge," who had in like manner broken into that nobleman's park. What was pastime for a Prince of Wales and his companions in the fourteenth century, might well be regarded as a venial misdemeanor on the part of a landless knight, and a mark of spirit in a yeoman's son, in the sixteenth.
But he with the "three louses rampant" on his coat makes much more than this of Falstaff's affair. He will bring it before the Council, he will make a Star-Chamber matter of it, and pronounces it a riot. And, in fact, according to his account, Sir John was not content with steal
ing his deer, but broke open his lodge and beat
It seems then, that, in writing this passage, Shakespeare had in mind not only an actual occurrence in which Sir Thomas Lucy was concerned, but one of greater gravity than a mere deer-stealing affair; that having been made the occasion of more serious outrage.
Now, Sir Thomas Lucy was a man of much consideration in Warwickshire, where he had come to a fine estate in 1551, at only nineteen years of age. He was a member of Parliament twice; first in 1571, and next from November, 1584, to March of the following year; just before the very time when, according to all indications, Shakespeare left Stratford. Sir Thomas was a somewhat prominent member of the Puritanical party, as appears by what is known of his Parliamentary course. For instance, during his first term he was one of a committee appointed upon "defections” in religious matters, one object of the movers of which was “to purge the Common Prayer Book, and free it from certain superstitious ceremonies, as using the sign of the cross in baptism,” &c. He was, on the other hand, active in the enforcement and preservation of the game privileges of the nobility and gentry, and served on a committee to which a bill for this purpose was referred, of which he appears to have been chairman. This took place in his last term, 1584 to 1585, — the time of his alleged persecution of William Shakespeare for poaching. Charlecote, his seat, being only three miles from Stratford, and he being a man of such weight and position in the county, he would naturally have somewhat close public relations with the towns-people and their authorities. That such was the case, the records of the town and of the county furnish ample evidence. Whenever there was a commission appointed in relation to affairs in that neighborhood, he was sure to be on it; and the Chamberlain's accounts, as set forth by Mr. Halliwell, show expenses at divers times to provide Sir Thomas with sack and sugar, to expedite or smooth his intercourse with the corporation. But in spite of mollifying drinks, the relations of the Lucy family with the Stratford folk were not always amicable. Mr. Halliwell's investigations have shown that the Lucys were not unfrequently engaged in disputes with the corporation of that town. Records of one about common of pasture in Henry VIII.'s time are still preserved in the Chapter House at London ; and among the papers at the Rolls' House is one containing "the names of them that made the ryot uppon Master Thomas Lucy, esquier.”
Here are all the conditions of a very pretty parish quarrel. A puritanical knight, fussy about his family pretensions and his game, having hereditary disagreement with the Stratford people about rights of common, - a subject on which they were, like all of English race, sure to be tenacious, - after having been left out of Parliament for eleven years, is re-elected, and immediately sets to work at securing that privilege so dearly prized by his class, and so odious to all below it, - the preservation of game for the pastime of the gentry. The anti-puritan party and those who stand up stoutly for rights of common vent their indignation to the best of their ability ; one of their number writes a lampoon upon him, and a body of them, too strong to be successfully withstood, break riotously into his grounds, kill his deer, beat his men, and carry off their booty in triumph. The affair is an outbreak of rude parish politics, a popular demonstration against an unpopular man; and who so likely to take part in it as the son of the former high bailiff, who, we know, was no puritan, and whose father, ambitious, and, as we shall see, even pretending to a coat of arms, had most probably had personal and official disagreements with, and received personal slights and rebuffs from, his rich, powerful, arrogant neighbor, -- or who so likely to write the lampoon as young Will Shakespeare? There could hardly have been two in Stratford who were able to write that stanza, the rhythm of which shows no common clodpole's ear, and which, though coarse in its satire, is bitter and well suited to the occasion. That it is a genuine production, – that is, part of a ballad written
at the time for the purpose of lampooning Sir Thomas Lucy, — I think there can be no doubt: it carries its genuineness upon its face and in its spirit. That Shakespeare wrote it, I am inclined to believe. But even were he not its author, if he had taken any part in a demonstration against Sir Thomas Lucy, and soon after was driven, by whatever circumstances, to leave Stratford for London, where he rose to distinction as a poet, rumor would be likely soon to attribute the ballad to him, and to assign the occasion on which was written as that which caused nis departure; and rumor would soon become tradition.* That Shakespeare meant to pay off a Stratford debt to Sir Thomas Lucy in that first scene of The Merry Wives, and that he did it with the memory of the riotous trespass upon that gentleman's grounds, seem equally manifest. That he had taken part in the event which he commemorated, there is
* The stanza given above is plainly one, and not the first, of several. Others have been brought forward as the remainder of the lampoon ; but they are too plainly spurious to be worthy of notice. The story of the deer-stealing is said by Mr. Fullom, in his History of William Shakespeare, to be confirmed by a note, entered, about 1750, in a manuscript pedigree of the Lucy family, by an old man named Ward, who derived his information from family papers then in his hands. But this date is nearly fifty years after the publication of the story in Rowe's Life, and so is of little or no value. According to the same authority Sir Thomas Lucy ceased his prosecution of Shakespeare, and released him, at the intercession of the Earl of Leicester.